Plato’s Republic, Book I: Introduction (Part I)

Plato’s Politeia, or “regime,” later translated and romanized by Cicero and the Romans as “Res Publica” or The Republic, is a narrated dialogue. It is narrated by Socrates in the first person to an unnamed individual, or individuals, the day following the events and shortly before the events of the Timaeus dialogue.

As with the totality of the Platonic corpus, nothing in the Republic is erroneously placed. Every character and conversation has an important reason to the meaning of the dialogue. As has been noted by Leo Strauss, the Platonic dialogue imitates the manyness and multiplicity of being, the complexity and heterogeneity of life, and thus the Platonic dialogue forms a cosmos unto itself with the purpose of helping human beings by providing a grounding from which to articulate the great mysteries of life. Each dialogue deals with one particular truth, and reveals a certain part of the mystery. Nowhere in Plato do we find the Platonic “doctrine” or “treatise”, as we would with other later writers, including Aristotle and Kant. The Platonic dialogue is a different kind of truth-telling that masks the opinions of the author. The Republic, the most famous political work of all time, is identified through its title by the author, Plato, as being about the “regime”, and its theme is explicitly pertaining to justice.

It begins as a descent, or a “downgoing”. Socrates recalls his descent the day before from the city of Athens down to the port of Athens, the Piraeus, which is the seat of the Athenian navy, as well as all things foreign and diverse in the democracy. He went with Glaucon, a brother of Plato and one who Xenophon said was cured by Socrates of his extreme political ambition, to pray to the goddess and also to observe the festival of Bendis, a novel foreign procession being hosted for the first time.

When hurrying back to town they are stopped by a son of Cephalus, Polemarchus, the “warlord” who orders his slave boy to command Socrates and Glaucon to wait, so the slave boy grabs Socrates’s cloak. The scene sets up an imitation of the future discussion on the nature of justice in which, appropriately, the warlord employs the use of arms, not letters, to compel the others, while Socrates responds skeptically asking where Polemarchus is, and Glaucon is easily swayed. A moment later Polemarchus arrives with Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother, and also Niceratus, and unnamed others from the procession. Polemarchus notes that they are outnumbered and compels them to prove stronger or else stay. He is concerned with the power of number, force, and the majority rule. Socrates, the philosopher, offers an alternative -Polemarchus could persuade them to stay. The conversation on justice is involuntary. Polemarchus claims that they will not listen to persuasion, and Glaucon submits. Before Socrates can submit to force, Adeimantus, the most important man in the group, offers a persuasive alternative -the spectacle of a torchrace on horseback -novel because of the horse race and not the goddess, and Polemarchus another sight before and after dinner. Glaucon makes the decision, his third decision, to stay and Socrates has no choice but to abide by the decision of the overwhelming majority. The conversation on justice begins in a democratic process that emerged from the initial tyrannical impulses of Polemarchus. Thus the conversation on justice is owed to a mix of persuasion (Adeimantus) and compulsion (Polemarchus). Perhaps Justice, as duty or obligation, is a kind of mixture of reason and coercion.

Though the promises of sight seeing and dinner are alluring, they do not come to pass and the conversation on Justice leads the men at least from the afternoon into the early morning, with the sun setting into darkness at some point in the conversation, perhaps at the beginning of the fifth book. Devoid of food and sightly pleasures, the Republic proves to be an act of moderation, of self-control in the example of Socrates. Perhaps the Republic presents the cure for any political ambition, extreme or otherwise.

It is important to note the context of this risky conversation, in which the problems of the regime are exposed, as it takes place in the Piraeus. Ten men are about to gather at the home of a foreigner, five Athenians, four metics, and one foreign teacher of rhetoric. Here in the Piraeus, the memory of old Athens is faint. It is far from the ancient Marathon fighters, and instead it embraces the sensation of the new and the strange. the Festival of Bendis. Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus prove to be concerned about this new political reality and desire to restore political health to the city. Harsh criticisms of the regime of democracy are made in the dialogue, without objection, and others present express interest in reform. This conversation can be taken as a prelude to the age of The Thirty Tyrants, or The Thirty From the Piraeus.  This epoch involved a group of men who tried to regain control and restore virtue to Athens by extreme measures. They ruled for thirteen months after defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Pelopponesian War. Some of the men present for the dialogue will become victims of The Thirty. In this way, the dialogue becomes like others: Socrates speaking to general who are defeated or about to be defeated in the Laches, or Socrates discussing moderation with future tyrants in the Charmides. In the Republic, he speaks to a group of future victims of unjust men attempting reinstate justice. Some of the Thirty were followers of Socrates, like the cruel Critias, while members in the dialogue like Lysias managed to escape The Thirty but Polemarchus fell victim.

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